North Lakes Academy has its first National History Day grand champion.

Junior Abigail Peterson took home the top prize of the senior individual website division at the National History Day competition on June 13 at the University of Maryland, College Park, with her website entry titled “Stomaching America: Tragedies and Triumphs of ‘The Jungle,’” which tackled the history of meat packers and how immigration played a role in the industry (“The Jungle” is an influential 1906 novel about the meat packing industry). In addition, Peterson was awarded a scholarship to attend a history event next summer.

The win is even more impressive due to Peterson’s narrow second place win at the state competition, held on May 4 at the University of Minnesota. Peterson’s chances of qualifying for nationals were slim due to her initial placement in the first round of judging. Now, the junior and members of her school are celebrating her victory on the national stage.

“All of North Lakes Academy is so proud of Abigail. ...There isn’t a more determined and dedicated student in our building,” NLA history teacher Chris Stewart said.

Five students from NLA, along with their advisers, NLA history teachers Stewart and Allison Tucker, traveled to the Washington, D.C., area for the competition, in which competitors go deep on a historical topic for a panel of judges. Read more about how the History Day competitions work in the May 20 story “NLA’s History Day program sends 5 to nationals” or online at tinyurl.com/y5prh573.

“It didn’t feel like it was a competition until the judging day or night before,” Peterson said. “We all had a ton of fun just being in D.C., but then the night before our judging day, I was getting so nervous because it had all worked its way up to this point. This was the culmination — my make or break — of my project.”

In the month between the state contest and the national contest, Peterson worked to improve her website (which is no longer active as of press time). Sarah Aschbrenner, the coordinator of the Minnesota chapter of National History Day, offered feedback to Peterson on her presentation following the state competition. Peterson also took the critiques she received from her judges to make improvements.

“I didn’t change as much as I wanted to, really,” Peterson said.

Peterson said she deleted a lot of pictures, switched around the order of some of the content on her website, and added an entire section about the owners of the meat-packing companies to balance out the argument.

“One of my main feedback points [from the state competition judges] was that the primary sources outweighed my own voice. One of the things that made me really happy was getting the nationals feedback and they saw that I had made an effort to change after state and saw how my voice isn’t out-weighted by primary sources,” Peterson said.

Her nerves had hardly subsided as she went into her round of judging, which was composed of a 10-minute interview with a judging panel that had spent the last month looking at the project. Before Peterson stepped into the room, Stewart and Tucker spent time asking her practice questions about her research on the topic and its historical impact. One of the pieces of advice her teachers gave her was to focus on what made her passionate about the topic.

“I walked in, and my first question was ‘What made you passionate about this project?’ I was like, ‘OK, I can start right out of the gate with the piece I know I can focus on.’ At that point I was focusing so hard on what I was saying, I wasn’t focused on other things,” Peterson said. She left the room feeling confident in her presentation.

“It was a whirlwind,” Peterson said. “I walked out feeling like there was nothing more that I could’ve done.”

Aschbrenner had sat in on her interview and approached Peterson afterward. Peterson recalls her tearing up as she said, “That totally could’ve been me 20 years ago. I’m so proud of you.”

“It was really sweet,” Peterson said.

Unlike the state competition, there is only one round of live judging for the website category. Each winner from each section is sent to the final round of judging, for which the contestants do not have to present in front of the judges again. Instead, the judges discuss which one of the top finishers in each section should be awarded which place, so Peterson didn’t know the outcome of that first round of judging until her name was announced during the awards ceremony. She knew she had reached the finals when she saw her name flash on an electronic board during the awards ceremony, but she didn’t suspect she won, since the top three finishers’ names aren’t typically flashed on the screen.

“I was like, ‘Cool. I placed. That’s awesome,’” Peterson said. She waited as the third and second place finishers were announced. Then they announced the first place finisher.

“They announced, ‘From Forest Lake, Minnesota,’ and I actually turned to the girl sitting behind me, who was from St. Paul, and said ‘Congratulations!’ and everyone was like, ‘No, Abigail, you won!’” she recalled.

At the awards ceremony before Peterson’s award was announced, Stewart had watched many students run down the arena stairs with their teachers behind them to accept their championship awards.

“I commented to Mrs. Tucker that one day, someday, we’d get that chance with one of our competitors. We had no idea at the time that it would happen about 15 minutes later,” Stewart said. “It was a surreal moment.”

Still in a little bit of shock, Peterson began the run down from the stands in the arena to the stage.

“It was so bizarre. I was so full of adrenaline — I’ve had adrenaline rushes before, but not like that. I was shaking and couldn’t breathe,” she said.

She accepted her award and had barely caught her breath before another announcement made her head turn. Halfway through waiting in line to take her picture as a winner, her name was called again.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s funny, another Abigail Peterson just won something.’ I had counted earlier, and there were like five Abigails. But my teachers were in front of me, and they said, ‘No, that was you again!’”

Peterson had just been named a winner of a $10,000 scholarship to attend the National History Academy, a five-week history intensive in Virginia next summer, where she’ll spend time touring historic sites and learning from Ivy League professors. It was an award Peterson said she didn’t know was even available, as there was no information on it ahead of time, as with many of the other special awards.

She said it wasn’t until the awards ceremony was over and she shuffled off to the side to call her parents, who had been watching the livestream of the awards ceremony, that she cried.

“As soon as my mom answered, she was screaming and I burst into tears. Then I called my dad after that, who was at work livestreaming it, and he was crying too. Like you could tell they were so proud of me, and that made me tear up,” Peterson said.

It was a proud moment for her teachers, as well.

“When Abigail’s name was announced, I was so happy, so proud, and a little dumbfounded, but in hindsight, I can’t think of a more deserving student,” Stewart said. “It was a fantastic end to a year of unprecedented accomplishments for our program.”

Though she could choose to compete again next year, Peterson doesn’t plan on competing in next year’s competition. Instead, she’ll spend her final year in high school helping other NLA students’ history day projects succeed.

“I want to help inspire others to do better,” Peterson said.

As for her awards, she said, “I’m just so excited for what this could mean for my future.” Peterson and her mom will soon fly back to the Washington, D.C., area, this time to tour colleges on the east coast.

“I don’t necessarily want to go into history for college, but the research process is probably a bigger part of National History Day than the actual history part, and I definitely want to go into a research field,” Peterson said. “I’ve been looking at policy analysis as a major.”

Peterson said it feels strange to be done with her 10-month-long project and to have that national title and scholarship award under her belt.

“There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Wow, but should it really be over?’ I pull up my website occasionally and look at it and go, ‘How on earth did this win?’” she said. But win she did.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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